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White Balance

The DSC-L1 offers only the most basic of control over white balance - aside from the default auto setting there are only four presets (tungsten, fluorescent, cloudy and daylight). There is no 'manual' or custom white balance - hardly surprising in a camera of this class. Although the DSC-L1 struggled under tungsten lighting when shooting our test chart it did a better than average job with fluorescents. In real world use we found auto white balance to be consistently reliable when shooting outdoors and under fluorescent lighting. Under tungsten (incandescent) lighting the results broadly reflect what our test chart shows - all exhibit a warm (or at times downright orange) color cast, which disappears altogether if you switch to the tungsten white balance preset.

Outdoor - Auto WB
Red 0.1%, Blue 1.2%
Excellent

Fluorescent - Auto WB
Red 0.9%, Blue -1.5%
Good
Incandescent - Auto WB
Red 12.6%, Blue -15.9%
Poor

Flash Performance

Flash wasn't traditionally Sony's strong point, and the rather under-powered unit on the DSC-L1 is usable, rather than outstanding. On the positive side, the color is almost perfect and the output is throttled down well when shooting nearby subjects, meaning blown-out results are rare. Other good news includes a fairly speedy recycle time, very short lag even when using the red-eye reduction and slow-synch and flash level output options. The bright autofocus illuminator reaches a couple of meters at best, but it does allow the L1 to focus in total darkness.

The only real problem is that the flash isn't powerful enough, meaning indoor shots of people at night have totally black backgrounds, and it struggles with larger groups of people. Our test shots show a slightly warm color cast to flash shots, something we didn't really see in real-world shots (though to be honest I'd rather a slightly warm tone than a blue cast). Most flash shots are very slightly underexposed, though this does help avoid blown highlights, and it takes seconds to brighten them up in post-processing.

Skin tone
Excellent color, slight under exposure
Color chart
Slight warm tone, very slight under exposure

Macro Focus

The DSC-L1 - unusually - doesn't have a dedicated macro mode, though it does manage a fairly respectable 12cm (4.7 inches) closest focus distance at the wide (32mm equiv.) end of the zoom, capturing an area around 10cm across. Inevitably there is some barrel distortion and corner softness. At the long end of the zoom the minimum focus distance is more like 50cm (19.75 inches), capturing an area just under 19cm across. Disappointingly focusing this close at the tele setting produces almost as much distortion (and even softer corners) than when using the wide end of the zoom.

Wide macro - 104 x 78 coverage
22 px/mm (562 px/in)
Distortion: Average
Corner softness: Average
Equiv. focal length: 32 mm
Tele macro - 187 x 140mm coverage
12 px/mm (313 px/in)
Distortion: Above average
Corner softness: High
Equiv. focal length: 96 mm

Barrel and Pincushion Distortion

Whilst there is measurable distortion at the wide end of the zoom (around 1.2%), it is no worse than most ultra compact 3x zooms (especially taking into consideration the slightly wider angle this lens offers), and is much better than many. It certainly doesn't have a significant impact on real-world shots. Edge sharpness leaves a little to be desired, though it does improve as focus distance increases. There is noticeable (0.9%) pincushion distortion at the long (96mm equiv.) end of the zoom range.

Barrel distortion - 1.2% at Wide angle
Equiv. focal length: 32 mm
Pincushion distortion - 0.9% at Telephoto
Equiv. focal length: 96 mm

Noise Comparison

Here for visual comparison are three identical shots taken at 100, 200 and 400 ISO settings in our studio. Sony's noise reduction is fairly harsh, but it does produce very smooth-looking results even at ISO 400. I'd personally like to see a lower base ISO with less noise reduction, but you can't have everything!

ISO 100 100% crop ISO 200 100% crop
 
ISO 400 100% crop

 

Specific Image Quality Issues

Of course all ultra-compact cameras such as this are going to present some kind of compromise when it comes to image quality. The question is how much of a compromise are we prepared to accept in image quality terms to get a camera that is truly pocket-sized?

Well Sony knows a thing or two about making small cameras that produce a decent result, and the DSC-L1 is no exception. On the positive side the color is excellent; vibrant without being artificial, focus accuracy - even in low light - is excellent, and the noise levels are very low. Of course this is down to noise reduction, meaning some fine detail has been sacrificed, but looking at the difference between ISO 100 and 400 in our studio shots I don't think we're losing much of what the lens is capable of.

Of course if you look close enough you'll find problems - an overall softness (though I'd rather this than over-sharpened) or even 'muddiness' of detail is evident if you view the images at 100% on-screen, but standard-sized prints look better than you'd expect from such a small camera and tiny zoom lens. More serious are occasional exposure errors - especially in scenes dominated by large areas of highlight or shadow (i.e. the sky), but you soon learn to use the AE lock in such situations. The rather high default contrast, limited dynamic range (common to all cameras using a sensor this small) and tendency towards under exposure all combine to produce images with very dark shadow areas when shooting bright scenes, but this is preferable to the blown highlights we see in many of the L1's competitors, and is much more 'rescuable'.

Flare

Perhaps inevitable with a slightly wider lens in such a small form factor, we found the L1 slightly more prone to flare in certain (UK winter) shooting situations. It's not a serious issue, but it is worth keeping an eye on the preview screen when the sun is low in the sky.

100% crop 32 mm equiv., F2.8

Color fringing

Not a major issue at all, we did find some purple fringing in areas - such as this - of high contrast and slight overexposure. Compared to other sub-mini cameras it's not serious problem, and the tendency towards slightly underexposed images helps.

100% crop 37 mm equiv., F2.8
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